Detroit Needs Mr. Orr and Mayor-Elect Duggan

The lawyers and pundits will scour every word in the ruling by Judge Steven Rhodes declaring the City of Detroit eligible for bankruptcy. Truth be told, I’d probably find that exercise exhilarating!

In the end however, it’s not the ruling from Judge Rhodes with which I am preoccupied. Nor am I particularly concerned with what Mr. Kevyn Orr, the city’s emergency manager, will ultimately present in terms of a plan of adjustment for the city. Rather, I am thinking about January 1, 2014, when Mayor-Elect Mike Duggan and five new city council members take the oath of office and assume their responsibilities to the citizens to Detroit.

Mr. Orr of course has all the power to do what he believes is appropriate to address the fiscal crisis in the city. Judge Rhodes has given him considerable latitude so long as the entire fabric of the recovery plan is reasonable and just in the eyes of the court, especially where pensions are concerned.

But what power does Mayor-Elect Duggan have? More precisely, what power will he have after January 1st? If you answered, “no power at all” you would, I think, be wrong. While Mr. Duggan may indeed have little in the way of decision-making power he nonetheless was ELECTED to office as were five new councilmembers. More to the point, Mr. Duggan reasonably believes that he and his colleagues on the council do indeed have an important and significant role in the management of the city’s recovery.

True leadership grows out of commitment, passion, vision, perseverance, and teamwork. There is every indication that Mr. Duggan and Mr. Orr, former law school classmates, will make an effort to work together. Success for Detroit requires that the cold-blooded management decisions that are the purview of Mr. Orr are tempered by attention to the best interests of actual residents in Detroit – residents represented by the elected political leaders – Mr. Duggan and his council colleagues.

Brooks, J.A. 2010

About the Author: James Brooks is NLC’s Program Director for Community Development and Infrastructure and is also responsible for leading the International Programs.  Follow Jim on Twitter @JamesABrooks.

Local Issues Play Out in National Elections

All eyes may have been turned toward Ohio on election eve in order to discover the outcome of the Presidential contest. However, significant issues impacting the day-to-day lives of Americans were voted on in Michigan, Georgia, Washington, California and other states. Of special note were the events in Tennessee, where the courts had intervened on matters relating to voting procedures. There, the simple local government library card became the tool of many citizens seeking to exercise their right to vote.

The battle over voting rights in Tennessee was perhaps the most significant one in which the practical thinking of city leadership provided a guarantee of civil liberties. The state government in Tennessee had passed a law requiring a government issued photo identification in order to vote. Law suits challenging the constitutionality of the law were filed by several parties all arguing that the limited list of state-sanctioned ID’s would lead to widespread voter disenfranchisement and that; in any case, there was little prior evidence of voter fraud absent a photo ID. A ruling by the State Court of Appeals on October 26th, just days before the election, refused to invalidate the state law but did allow the humble library card being issued by many cities such a Memphis to constitute a valid form of ID. The state Supreme Court will ultimately decide the fate of the voter ID law and the status of local efforts to mitigate the laws antidemocratic edges.

Michigan voters were front and center in campaigns to beat back state efforts to undermine the power of democratically elected municipal governments. At issue was Public Act 4, the law which empowered state-appointed “emergency managers” of municipalities and school districts to wield unchecked authority to pass ordinances, sell property and change labor contracts. Voters repealed this law on Election Day. As in Tennessee, the Michigan state government has a fallback position. This takes the form of Public Act 72, an earlier law allowing for emergency managers but granting them a more narrow scope of power. The fight is expected to continue in the legislature on what some locals have dubbed “the dictator law.”

Advocates of school choice earned some important victories. Voters in Georgia and Washington approved measures allowing establishment (Washington) or reestablishment (Georgia) of charter schools bringing the number of states allowing charters to forty-two. Three times in 20 years the Washington voters had rejected charters only to reverse course in 2012 and allow 40 new charter schools to be created. Georgia had allowed charter schools in prior years but teacher unions had the process blocked after a court challenge in 2011. In the 2012 election, voters approved an amendment to the state constitution allowing the state to authorize charter schools. Some legislators are considering filing suit on the grounds that the amendment language was overly vague and the matter may or may not find its way back to the courts.

In a final case, the fate of a yet-to-be-constructed bridge catapulted an otherwise local matter onto the statewide ballot in Michigan. At issue was the proposed construction of a new international bridge linking Detroit to Windsor, Ontario. In a deal supported by Governor Rick Snyder, the Canadian government was prepared to front the $950 million required for the project. In this most bizarre confrontation, the family that controls the privately-owned Ambassador Bridge between the two cities sought to force a statewide vote on the issue of any new international border crossing. Michigan votes would have none of this, defeating the proposal to amend the state constitution and thereby enshrine monopoly control of the border crossing. The measure failed despite spending of $28 million by those with an interest in the Ambassador Bridge.

Our Divided Political Heart

It’s a shame that political party conventions don’t provide the kind of compelling and stimulating debate on policy issues that might actually serve to inform voters – assuming any are listening – about the electoral choice before the nation. It’s all the more regrettable because the American Republic is a nation of problem solvers all but genetically predisposed to “fix” things that appear broken, out of synchronization or that are not performing up to an acceptable standard.

Of course, implementation of this pragmatic solution-driven approach assumes that some significant portion of the general public actually agrees on the nature of the problems and on the necessary solutions. Judging by contemporary assessments of the political branches of government, the nation is not only divided over what solutions to offer but also over the very definition of the problems.

Herein lays the thrust of Our Divided Political Heart, E. J. Dionne’s contribution to election year politics.

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